Ever watch dogs at play, carefree? Next time you go on an off-leash hike with a canine, or even just a walk around the neighborhood, watch how they just jog along. Assuming they aren’t in pursuit of cat, squirrel, or pedestrian, it’s an easy trot, an effortless series of flicks of the ankle joints. It’s smooth, and their heads and shoulders stay mostly level with the ground. No off balanced dipping or stumbling. Oh, sure, the composure goes out the window when a frisbee’s let fly and they tear off after it, tongue flapping and fur rustling and muscles pumping, but to watch a calm, curious off-leash dog trot around, checking out the surroundings, sniffing, and just taking it all in is to watch an animal at total, complete ease in his own (furry) skin. We can learn a lot from watching dogs, as I have from my own Yellow Lab, Buddha.
The thing about dogs is they’re always waiting for you to do something. They tend to dote. Good dogs do this, anyway. Loyal, selfless, and always eager to please, a good dog will watch your every move, or at least be ever aware of your position in their general vicinity. Dogs are a strange mix of wild animal and family member. They think they’re people, basically.
That makes it hard to watch a dog just be a dog. It certainly can’t be done inside a house or apartment, and even a big backyard isn’t ideal. You’ve got to get the dog outside, in its natural, ancestral setting, with earth and foliage and wildlife and millions of smells, sights, and sounds, if you truly wish to observe a dog being a dog, free and uninhibited. We run Buddha on the beach or on trails near our house. Dog parks are another option. Because when you watch a dog, you’re essentially looking at a wolf playing a domesticated family pet. That dog may be man’s best friend, but he also yearns to run free through field and fen from time to time. Don’t believe me? Take your dog out to the wild for a day or three. See how he responds. He’ll still listen to you, of course, but he’s going to be a different, happier, wilder dog than you remembered.
At PrimalCon, Barefoot Ted’s talk touched on what we can learn from watching dogs at play. Ted noted that an effective visual cue for learning how to move without shoes across a landscape (any landscape, really) is to watch how a dog moves in the wild. The signature trot, the casual ankle flicks, the strong upright muzzle, the propensity to stop and smell pretty much anything and everything – he made the point that this mode of moving fractally, in spurts and with random, haphazard pace and smooth cadence, is most natural for a terrestrial mammal like ourselves and the dog. Grace and chaos. Quality and variety of movements. The dog’ll just as soon sprint after a mysterious rustle in the bushes (lizard, maybe) as he’ll stop on a dime and piss to mark his territory. He might investigate a previous dog’s droppings, pounce on a beetle scuttling across the trail, then get spooked by an ornery bluejay and hightail it out of there. For every mile you walk, they go three, weaving across the trail from side to side, running ahead of you and then behind you, clambering up hills and then back down. And they always return to the trot, that endless, eternal trot – until they sense something else that grabs their attention, and off they go. We could learn a lot from them.
Nassim Taleb talks about this stuff in “Why I Do All This Walking, or How Systems Become Fragile,” (PDF) his essay extolling the virtues (and necessity) of randomness in our lives. Steady regimented exercise and three square meals a day aren’t necessary, and they aren’t even “normal” in evolutionary terms; they are in direct opposition to our fractal, irregular natures. Like the dog (or the cat, or the rat, or any animal out there with some semblance of a brain – I’m not talking about ants or other grubby drones), we are creatures of the wild, of nature. And though there exist underlying laws that govern the way the world works, they are cloaked in randomness. You could slap a matrix of physics equations onto the ocean’s currents and technically explain it away (on paper), but taken as a whole, the physical world remains a playground of randomized events. To the animals living and participating in its grandeur, nature simply is. It is wild and it is something new every day, and we must respond.
The ideal healthy human heart beat itself is fractal, and disrupting this tendency – as does cigarette smoking (PDF) – increases the risk of heart attack. And yet those with metronomic heart beats thrive under extreme stress and duress, as Brent Pottenger discussed in a blog post, even as they suffer from early heart disease. Normal human gait is also fractal. There appears to be a connection between gait and heart beat. Perhaps the unnatural rhythm of Chronic Cardio affecting the heart rate can explain the increased susceptibility of marathoners to congestive heart failure.
Men and women who jog along paved suburban streets at a steady heart rate could virtually do it blindfolded. This isn’t normal, though. It’s entirely novel to our organism. We were once those animals living something new every day, reacting and responding to what nature threw at us. We rarely, if ever, traversed flat, even paths. There were trees and slopes to climb and sharp rocks and pointed roots to avoid. Check out that persistence hunting video that’s made the rounds before; they’re running, walking, stalking, and moving fractally, rather than maintaining a steady pace for hours. It’s not quite as random as the dog’s movements and inclinations, but it’s similar. We may not have to avoid obstacles and watch our steps anymore, but we should walk, run, hike, jog, and climb as if we do – even if that means hopping around on the street and varying our speed and mode of travel (sprinting, then slowing, then jogging, then sprinting, then crawling, and so on) like a crazy person.
Do not run long, boring, high-intensity Chronic Cardio (but you already knew that).
Instead, incorporate fractals into your fitness.
Walk around a lot at a slow pace, and maybe throw in the occasional sprint or Grok crawl.
Go on a hike.
Vary the speed and mode of movement, but maintain the quality of your performance. Don’t get sloppy. Relax. Have fun. Play! And if you ever need any more ideas for incorporating fractals into your movements, bring a dog, remove his leash, and watch what he does.
Share your thoughts on canine coaching and fractal movement in the comment board, and thanks for reading!